Search Friday June 4, 2004

Philip Bowring: Abuse sheds light on vulnerable millions
Asia's migrant workers
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Wednesday, May 26, 2004

MANILA: The torture and disfigurement of an Indonesian migrant maid by her Malaysian employer has been making headlines around Asia, just at the moment when the Global Commission on International Migration has begun hearings on regional migration issues. The Malaysian case is the tip of an iceberg of migrant abuse and is a reminder of the central role of Asian countries as both source and destination of migrants.

Mexicans in the United States and Africans and Arabs in Europe may dominate international discussion of migration, be it permanent or temporary, formal or undocumented. But in numbers and variety of cross border movement of people, Asia dominates, a result of its huge populations, the mobility of its people and the impact of huge differences in demographics and living standards across the continent.

About eight million Filipinos - one-tenth of the Philippines' population - live overseas, as permanent or illegal migrants to North America, as domestic servants everywhere, as entertainers in Japan, as nurses in Europe, and in every level of job, from maid to bank manager, in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. In Malaysia more than a million Indonesians work as maids and on plantations, and several hundred thousand Bangladeshis do the lowest-paid, dirtiest jobs.

India and Pakistan are huge suppliers of labor, skilled and unskilled, to the Middle East. Thailand exports labor to many countries but imports even more. An estimated one million Burmese do the lowest-paid work in Thailand, which also has undocumented workers from China and Cambodia. For middle-class households in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, it is the norm to employ a maid - at a fraction of the median local wage - from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka or Thailand.

Demand for foreign labor will continue to grow in prosperous East Asia, where birth rates are even lower than in Europe. Meanwhile, people in countries with high birth rates and in countries like China, with huge underemployed rural populations, will seek opportunities abroad. Permanent migration, however, runs up against the ethnocentrism of the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese.

Undocumented migrant workers, who lack legal protection and face police harassment, are the ones who fall victim to the kind of abuse that the Malaysian case has drawn attention to. In Thailand and Malaysia, the demand for labor is such that the authorities often follow a policy of benign neglect, unwilling either to increase the official intake of migrant workers or to crack down on migrants essential to the construction and restaurant trades. Detained illegals are sometimes very harshly treated, however, and those who seek to protect them face hazards too. In Malaysia, a social activist was recently sentenced to jail for "publishing false news” - allegations of torture at a camp for detainees.

Nor do documented workers necessarily fare much better. Singapore has just begun to hand out stiff sentences for abuse of maids, but racist attitudes toward servants from Southeast and South Asia run deep. Even in Hong Kong, which has a relatively good reputation, underpayment of the official wage is frequent and maids are subject to a discriminatory tax.

Governments of source countries have mixed records of looking after their nationals. The Philippines does best because of the size of its overseas community, political pressure on the government to look after contract workers and the ability of Filipinos, when permitted, to organize themselves, as they have done in South Korea and Hong Kong. Philippine workers are often better protected abroad than at home.

Some governments, however, appear far more interested in elite contacts than in diplomacy to help their migrant workers. Indonesia recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysia that permits Malaysian employers to hold the passports of their Indonesian contract workers, effectively making them into a form of bonded labor.

Generally, governments are more interested in macroeconomic issues than workers' rights. Remittances are crucial to the Philippines and Bangladesh and important for India and Indonesia.

Recipient countries tolerate large numbers of illegal workers because their labor is cheap and they make minimal demands on health and education systems.

Economics, demography, the low cost of travel and the ease of remitting money all contribute to the huge movement of people around and out of Asia. Nothing seems likely to stop it. Indeed, it is an admirable example of the triumph of individual will and risk-taking over regulations designed to protect rich and racists alike. It partly compensates for the fact that governments that demand freedom of movement of goods and capital often deny it to people. It stimulates economies of source and recipient alike - albeit at a high social cost.

None of that justifies turning a blind eye to rampant abuse, however. It is doubtful whether the world can get very far in defining and implementing better practices on migrant issues that vary so much in origin and dynamics. But recognition of the facts, the abuses and the advantages would improve the lot of the migrant without reducing the opportunities that migration, legal or otherwise, offers.